CMU choral master ends distinguished conducting career
Robert Page didn't apply for any of the big jobs he's had in music. He didn't need to. His reputation preceded him.
Now 85, he's stepping down as Paul Mellon professor of music at Carnegie Mellon University at the end of the spring term, the conclusion to an important choral career on the concert stage and in academia. He was music director of the Mendelssohn Choir for more than a quarter-century, and prepared choruses for two other of the world's great orchestras, winning Grammys along the way, and conducted great orchestras such as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra himself in concert. He came to Pittsburgh to be head of the school of music at Carnegie Mellon more than three decades ago, about halfway through his academic career
He'll be honored at a reception after the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic concert April 3, for which he prepared the chorus for Anton Bruckner's Te Deum. He's also preparing two of the university choirs for participation in the Pittsburgh Symphony's Music for the Spirit Festival in late April.
Page says he's had a ball in his more than 60-year career, which combined teaching with choral performance at the highest level. He's been the go-to choral conductor for three of the world's great orchestras, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and worked with many of the world's top conductors.
“Bob is bigger than life. Even now, he's bigger than life,” says Michael Bielski, the Pittsburgh Symphony's chief operating officer. “This past year he worked on the All-Star College Choir, and was sitting (during the rehearsal). You could tell all the students idolized him. He treated them as professionals, as adults. He would scream his corrections. And when you looked into the eyes of those students you saw they would do anything he asked for. I think he's had this his entire career. He's just a person who, when you were around him, you felt you were alive. You cherish that.”
Page was born and raised in Abilene, Texas. He was the eighth of 10 children. His mother, Mary Elizabeth, taught all of them through the third-grade level of a set of piano instruction books.
“Neither of my parents finished high school, but they thought that music was one of the most important things,” he says. “My mother appreciated it from the standpoint of being an educated person and a citizen of a cultured community. My father appreciated it from a religious standpoint — we are meant to worship God with our voice.”
Although Page was the only one of the children to have a career in music, his path was indirect. He was interested in journalism and Spanish and hoped to be a bilingual reporter in Texas. After two years studying at Abilene Christian College, Page joined the Navy.
While stationed in San Diego, Page made his professional debut singing with the San Diego Light Opera.
“That's when I realized I could not stay out of music,” he says.
After discharge from the Navy, Page completed his education and began his career teaching at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, and entered the professional orchestral world when he was invited by the Albuquerque Symphony to conduct “Messiah.”
Four years later, Page came east to become professor of music and director of choral activities at Temple University. It was the single most important move of his career, because he started working right away with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with whom he made dozens of recordings and won his first Grammy.
Ormandy was Hungarian, nearly 60, and nearly half way through his 44-year tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra when Page began working with him.
“He somehow really took a liking to this young kid from west of the Mississippi. I was very young, 28, when I got the job at Temple,” Page says. “In those days, people hated you if you were young; now they worship you. He took me under his wing and advised me. I unashamedly say what I learned from Ormandy was texture. Nobody could change a sound as rapidly and dramatically as he could by a gesture or a small look on his face. It was just phenomenal how he could get the sound he wanted.”
Page moved to Pittsburgh in 1975 to be head of the school of music at Carnegie Mellon. Three years later, he was invited to take charge of the Mendelssohn Choir, which he led until 2005.
In addition to preparing the choir for other conductors, Page conducted subscription concerts as director of choral activities and special projects. He also led many unforgettable independent Mendelssohn Choir concerts, including Dmitri Shostakovich's “Babi Yar” Symphony, Felix Mendelssohn's “Elijah” and Anton Dvorak's “Stabat Mater.”
“It was a golden era for the Mendelssohn Choir,” says Connie Bernt, who was president of the choir from 1985-95 and then became chairman of the board. “We made several trips to Europe. It was a very exciting time. I think Bob is really a genius at pointing voices together.”
He also was the Cleveland Orchestra's director of choruses and assistant conductor from 1972-89.
In Cleveland, Page formed a strong partnership with Lorin Maazel, who was music director of the orchestra, a relationship which grew closer when Maazel became music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1988.
“Lorin and I hit it off immediately, because we both had the same concept of what music really is,” Page says. “It is not an intellectual process. Music is drama. It is communication, period. In a way that is in no other idiom, conducting is, next to mime, the only silent communication art.”
As the conductor credits Ormandy for teaching him texture, he acknowledges he learned clarity from Maazel.
“He has an incredible mind and memory. He did the piano rehearsal on the ‘Missa solemnis' (by Ludwig van Beethoven) by memory and knew the score rehearsal letters and everything. That was very intimidating, but I lived through it and learned to respect that,” Page says. “With me, he was nothing but a great human being. We always got along well. I don't know how this corn-bred boy and that sophisticated man from Europe made it, but we had a ball for 20 years.”
The high standards Page set with whatever group of singers he prepared began with work on musical fundamentals and thoroughly learning the piece. On one weekend in May 1994, the Mendelssohn Choir performed not only Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 but also the much longer and more vocally challenging Missa solemnis, under Maazel.
“Choir rehearsals under Bob were never boring for one second,” says soprano Cathy Bomstein, who began singing with the Mendelssohn in 1980.
“His warm-ups were wonderful and efficient and fun. He knew the name of every single person in the choir. Not only that, he could pick out of 90 or 100 people if one person was singing with vibrato or awry. He could pick them out immediately and did so on a regular basis. But he never made it feel tedious. We'd sing all the way through and then work on sections. Everything was meticulously marked and prepared ahead of time. It was a challenge to keep up at times. In spite of that, he made it exciting and fun for everyone.”
In addition to the technical aspects of preparation, Page had to develop a sense of priorities about the music being performed.
“That was for me, as a preparer of the chorus, what I had to ferret out,” Page says. “I had to perceive the main qualities in a piece of music. With (Andre) Previn, Maazel, (Christoph) von Dohnanyi and Colin Davis, I did Brahms' ‘A German Requiem.' None were the same. I think the vernacular for prioritization is interpretation.”
Page says it made no difference to him what the conductors wanted as long as they could get it. That was not always the case.
“I devised a term I would use in rehearsals that I've never revealed in public before now,” Page says. “When rehearsals were not going well with a visiting maestro, I would call out to the chorus, ‘D.W.W.R.' — do what was rehearsed — and they clicked into auto pilot.
“My job in preparing the choir for performance is to make them conductable. They have to know the music to be able to do it without me,” he says. “That's why I can say ‘D.W.W.R.' It took me a long time to realize I did not prepare for myself as well as I did for other conductors, because I made the mistake of thinking I'd take care of it in concert.”
Page also formed a close relationship with the symphony's principal pops conductor Marvin Hamlisch.
“Marvin was one of the best human beings I ever worked with. Those 17 years were absolute heaven,” Page says. “I did a lot of arranging for him aside from the PSO. He'd call from all over saying he needed me to do an arrangement. I'd ask him when he needed it.”
Page has been arranging choral music for 50 years, and loves popular music and Broadway. “What distresses me about most pops arrangements is that they're not done by people who know the voice. They may be skilled at the keyboard, but they don't know ‘Come to Jesus' in whole notes about voice. You'll find when I arrange, the voices sing, they come through. Being a singer and voice teacher myself, I know the sound that makes a good choral sound and how to cut through the orchestra.”
Page compares Hamlisch's “Chanukah Lights” to the great Christmas carols.
“When I perform that, it's what the audience goes out thinking. He had a gift for melody like nobody. I put him in the same status as (Franz) Schubert or (Francis) Poulenc. To me, they're the greatest. I can't imagine a different word setting for ‘The Way We Were.' The same thing with ‘What I Did for Love.'
Page says he doesn't have any plans as yet for his retirement. “Nothing earth-shattering. It's going to give me a little more time to do some traveling, which I really want to do. And some more arranging.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.